True Worship & The Box of Darkness (or, my answer to the eternal question: "What is Poetry?")

When you call yourself a poet, people will often ask you hard questions, such as “what is poetry?” As if I should know! (I should probably know.) Except, that poetry is this mysterious, amorphous thing that is notoriously, and by necessity, hard to define. Hard-to-define is part of the definition of poetry. But, that’s not a very satisfying or useful answer to give to eager students, or at cocktail parties. It doesn’t get you much but blank stares and offers to refill your glass. So I’ve been thinking. In fact, if I’m honest, I’m always thinking about this question, and for the first time, the feel of an answer, however ephemeral, has begun to emerge in my mind. 

I write poetry for a lot of reasons, but one of the main reasons is my ongoing need to metabolize the world around me as well as the world within me. I need some way to help me face and integrate into my psyche things like loss, grief, betrayal, war, the deaths of children, fires in the hills, the unexpected beauty of a torn butterfly wing on the ground. I need to know what to do with school shootings; I need to have somewhere to go with the faces of dying patients in the hospital where I volunteer as a chaplain. I need a way to hold that pain, that darkness, without it taking hold of me. I need to mark the moment, to put a flag in the ground, to say “I will not forget,” but there’s something more too. I need to hold that box of darkness until I can see light at its edges.

THE USES OF SORROW by  Mary Oliver, from Thirst

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

In the past, when people have asked me this question, I tried answers such as the following, all of which hold parts of the truth: "Poems contain an image or a thought that transforms within the space of the lines." "Poems are a portal through which you exit out and then return changed." "Poems allow you to inhabit the other, a persona, a different part of yourself, to try on another truth for size." All of these things I still believe to be true, but I've been needing something more to explain just what it is poetry does for me, for the world. 

I was talking with my publisher, Anne Yale of Yak Press the other day, about the poems and poets in the Native Blossoms Chapbook Series produced by Yak Press. We got talking about the poetry of Cody Deitz in his chapbook Pressed against All That Nothing, a beautiful collection of poems for and about the author’s brother and his journey through the military service, rehab and recovery, PTSD, and what we might call “reintegration.” This book had a profound impact on my students at the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community in Las Animas, Colorado, many of whom are veterans and almost all of whom are on their own journeys of addiction, recovery, and healing from trauma. Anne then gave me the kindest compliment I could have asked for: “What Cody’s poems do for people on that journey, I believe yours will do for those who have lost loved ones, especially mothers.” I replied, almost as a joke, “I’ve promised my husband that the next book of poems will be happy poems; I can’t seem to write anything but sad poetry!” “They aren’t sad,” she replied without hesitation. “They are about sad things, but they themselves have a luminosity about them. They are not sad poems.”

A luminosity. That’s it. That’s the box of darkness tinged in light.


YOUR FIRST MORNING by Alexandra Donovan, From Mother Stump

Your first morning was the gold

of a worn penny: cold and glowing,

the buddleia a purple so bright

it hurt against that quiet sepia,

that pooled metal stillness of dawn.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds trilled

in their shrill dive-bombs, plummeting

and pulling back up to the sky

in sharp V’s.

I’m telling you, it was beautiful,

your first morning

gone from me.


If you were to ask me tonight what my definition of poetry is, I would say this: a poem is a container for multiple simultaneous truths. It is a way of holding grief, anger, despair, or anything unbearable until some kind of beauty comes alongside it. Or in the other direction, it’s contemplation of something beautiful, or seemingly simple, until deeper shadows come into play. Poetry is a a way of sitting-with, of dwelling, of devotion; that is, we devote our gaze, our minds, our souls to a thought or image or memory long enough that multiple truths can emerge, can find a home together, side by side. After all, as Mary Oliver says in her collection of essays Upstream, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” True worship, then, does not seek one Truth with a capital T. True worship—what we might call “Poetry”—seeks a luminous box of darkness, a way of embracing the gift of this life that can and must hold it all—all pain, all beauty. True worship leads us not to answer, but to mysterious paradox, to the heart of our human experience in which searing pain and exquisite love require one another, and joy and sorrow mingle.